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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

05.01.2018
Being of a naturally optimistic disposition, I’ve often thought that the environmentalist movement has a deep streak of pessimism running through it. At the extreme, the world view is one of our species – and our species alone – being both outside Nature and with a negative impact on all other forms of life. Of course, most environmentalists don’t take nearly such a black and white position, but many still see humankind’s impact with a negative halo. Over the Christmas period, I came across two articles that cast some light on why pessimism seems so prevalent. Why things might not be as bad...
15.12.2017
Another year has nearly finished. For the EU, the combined tensions of Brexit, Catalonian nationalism and a much-weakened Chancellor Merkel seem to be doing little to disrupt normal life. On the other hand, the underlying contradictions inherent in a 27-member bloc technically united by a single currency – but in practice divided by very different economies and cultures – will surely be difficult to resolve, particularly with the current unwieldy and opaque system of governance. The fudge of contradictions is very apparent in the supposedly evidence-based systems for approval of GM crops and...
08.12.2017
The human capacity for self-criticism is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, we can recognise that we have caused harm and do something about it, but on the other hand this tendency can go so far that we think of nearly everything we do as being negative. At the extreme end of the spectrum, so-called Deep Greens consider humankind to be a blot on the planet, which would be better off without us. Not so for most of us, of course, and at the other extreme there are those who refuse to recognise – or at least try to minimise – the negative impacts of something they have done. Overall...
01.12.2017
As they say, forecasting is very difficult, particularly about the future. Hackneyed as this may be, it nicely encapsulates the need to take what anyone – however expert – says about the future with a large pinch of salt. This is particularly important as we are bombarded with projections about the future these days, largely because today’s IT makes it easier both to do the maths and to share the results. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need forecasts, simply that we should put them in the right context and not assume they are automatically right. Those making the forecasts should be very...
24.11.2017
Electric cars are now a daily sight on our streets, what were previously token charging points in public places are often in use, and people are now beginning to think of the implications of the much-touted transition away from the internal combustion engine. The assumption by enthusiasts is that this is going to happen sooner rather than later but, as with any major technical change, its course (and even the end point) is very difficult to predict. Most major changes such as this come about by a combination of innovation and market pull. Two hundred years ago, railways provided the first...
17.11.2017
Farming often gets a bad press. In the developed world it is, for example, a protected sector enjoying relatively high levels of subsidy which, at least in the UK, goes disproportionately to larger landowners. More generally, farmers are often held responsible for environmental damage (for a recent example, see Scale of ‘nitrate timebomb’ revealed). This does not do justice to highly productive farmers who care deeply about the countryside. In particular, pesticides are considered by some as a scourge to be got rid of rather than an aid to efficient, environmentally friendly food production....
10.11.2017
It’s that time of year again. The latest climate change summit – COP23 – has opened in Bonn, this time with a surprisingly low profile. This annual event is, of course, an opportunity to highlight the key issues that activists and many mainstream scientists worry about, so there is an accompanying stream of news releases, featuring, for example, the claim that records are being surpassed: 2017 ‘very likely’ in top three warmest years on record. If this turns out not to be the case (quite possible after the end of the recent El Niño), the fact will quietly be ignored. This hype is not new, but...
03.11.2017
With apologies to Monty Python, this seems like as good a title as any for what I have to say this week, prompted by an essay on the BBC website by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, current president of the Royal Society (How science transformed the world in 100 years). In a world in which science is too often feared and distrusted, it’s good to see such a prominent member of the scientific Establishment speaking out in defence of the sector. He starts by saying “If we could miraculously transport even the smartest people from around 1900 to today's world, they would be simply astonished at how we now...
27.10.2017
Last week, I wrote about the apparent lack of balance in the present EU review of the ubiquitous weedkiller, glyphosate (Double standards in safety assessments). On one hand, MEPs showed themselves only too willing to be swayed by what they perceive as public opinion (in reality, essentially the active anti-pesticide lobby and public inability to understand that the dose makes the poison) while simply ignoring the expert opinion of independent scientists working on behalf of the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemical Agency that use of glyphosate is safe. At the same time, the...
20.10.2017
Two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an advisory body to the World Health Agency, published an apparently damning report on glyphosate, one of the most widely-used herbicides around the world, and marketed by Monsanto under the Roundup brand. This was extensively reported, for example by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US (Glyphosate herbicide linked to cancer - IARC World Health Organization assessment). The IARC put glyphosate in Group 2A of its classification, as a ‘probable’ human carcinogen. This was commented on by the Scientific Alliance...

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